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This is the fourth of a four-part January sermon series. We started on New Year’s day with beginnings, as began a new year, reminded that life is a process of starting over, every day, every year, every graduation or completion of a task.
The beginning of a new year is a reminder that we live on a time line, from our date of birth, on the left side of the line, to death, on the other end, with a date we don’t know, except we know it’s there. But let’s not talk of endings – let’s talk of beginning, again and again.
We have new beginnings every time we have a new insight – and some insights are so significant we call them epiphanies.
An epiphany is, “A sudden realization or comprehension of the (larger) essence or meaning of something.”
It’s as though we’ve located another piece of the puzzle, helping us to understand something important to, like the realization the Three Wise Men had when they discovered the meaning of the Messiah, or the Christ – that the birth of a child in a barn represents the sacred in every person.
An epiphany is a new beginning, a ‘flash of inspiration’ that you hadn’t thought of before, but which matters a great deal to you as you move across the time-line of life, deepening the spiritual aspect of that life. It’s a liberating moment; it’s about maturity; it’s about wisdom, as opposed to the mere accumulation of information.
On that first Sunday Sunday we acknowledged that every culture has it’s story, or stories, about beginnings, like the Genesis story of Adam and Eve created out of clay.
We looked at the Inuit creation story that talks about of the first man kicking his way out of the pea pod, falling to the ground and getting up fully grown. The Inuit people have lived in the Arctic region for at least 18,000 years. That’s a lot of winters.
In their story the Creator is a Raven who can pick up his beak and turn into a man.
On the second Sunday in January we dug into the difficult word faith, using Harvey Cox’s new book The Future of Faith – noting his distinction between faith and belief…his main point is that faith is not belief – it’s almost the opposite.
In my summary I said, “Faith is the capacity to comprehend the meaning in living this life – the simple-but-profound meaning of living the life you are given, without demanding some supernatural meaning…without even asking ‘what’s the meaning of life?’
I said,“The meaning of life is living it…but there’s more: the meaning of life is living a life of integrity, accepting the fact that we’re all fallible – some more than others, of course, but we’re not perfect – we need forgiveness, which is one of the keys to the life of the spirit, one of the keys to faith.”
I suggested, “At their best, the religions of the world provide a structure or framework…a set of guidelines – a recipe for living a good life, but you have to do your own cooking!”
On the third Sunday in the month at the beginning of our calendar we went from beginnings, and faith to an exploration of prayer. I shared the story from the Spanish writer, Miguel Unamuno, about the man who visited his mother in the hospital and she asked him to pray for her, which he failed to do, telling the priest who was in the room, “I don’t believe in God,” to which the priest responded, “That’s nonsense, you don’t have to believe in God to pray.”
Prayer is a way of connecting – or reconnecting – with yourself and with others. It’s a form of self-talk that acknowledges the need for help, direction, forgiveness and an expression of appreciation for the gift of Life.
To illustrate the point I shared a couple of stories of my own about hospital room, like the one in Miguel Unamuno’s story, saying how poetry often serves the purpose of prayer.
A hospital story I didn’t share happened to me when I was doing my clinical pastoral education work at Mass General Hospital when I was in seminary. One day I visited a woman in her early 30’s who was dying – it was our only meeting and I was very moved; I asked if she wanted a prayer, and she said, “Yes,” in a way that suggested sincere appreciation for the offer. As I bent over her bed with my head just above hers, with my eyes closed, looking for the right words, my eyes filled with tears and I felt a tear drop from my eye. Embarrassed, I opened my eyes, and she did, too, and we were eye-to-eye, inches away, and she said, simply but profoundly, “Thank you.”
Clearly she wasn’t thanking me for the words, but for the tear.
On that third Sunday in January I suggested that listening to candle lighting and sharing silence, and sometimes sharing a tear, becomes a prayer. My effort to ‘patch a few words together, without trying to be elaborate’ (to use Mary Oliver’s poignant phrase) becomes the prayer.
We talked a bit about foxhole prayers – referring to the old adage ‘there are no atheists in foxholes.’
Which leads to today’s fourth-Sunday in January focus on the God question…about fox-hole theists (and we all live in a kind of fox hole, trying to survive ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ that life so often brings.
At times we are all agnostics or non-theists; sometimes, like the times when we listen to politicians using the word god to garner some votes, we become anti-theists, and maybe even misotheists, is a word used to describe hatred for god, but is more accurately a hatred for god talk when such talk insults our sensitivities.
The title, Googling God, as a tip of the hat to the world-wide web. Well, maybe not a tip of the hat, meaning ‘gratitude,’ but an acknowledgement of the huge impact it is having on our culture. I think it’s having more impact than we yet realize.
The impact of the invention of the world-wide web and the internet is right up there with the invention of the wheel, internal combustion engine, electricity, penicillin and indoor plumbing. It helps us to more easily connect with one another and to get information. We used to use dictionaries and card catalogs.
My rabbi friend, Bob Orkand, told us about an incident with a bar mitzvah boy who showed Bob something he wrote in preparation for the coming-of-age ritual. Bob pointed out that a particular word was used inappropriately, but the boy insisted it was used correctly, so Bob said, “Let’s look it up,” at which time he took his huge dictionary down from the shelf, and as he proceeded to find the word the boy said, “You mean the dictionary is a book?!”
During his thirteen years he never looked up a word in that kind of dictionary, only the electronic version.
So I titled the sermon for the fourth Sunday in January Googling God, partly as a reminder of the change we’re experiencing from the use of books and live lectures, like sermons, to the use of the internet, which gives us instant access to almost everything – access to everything except one another. (But that’s a topic for a future sermon series.)
Have you googled today?
I googled God. Not surprisingly the first one to pop up came from Wikipedia.
I looked up the etymology of the word Wikepedia. Do you know where the word came from? It was coined by Ward Cunningham, founder of Wikepedia. When he was at the airport in Hawaii he asked the best way to get to the terminal he needed and was told, “Take the wiki-wiki.”
He learned that the Hawaiian word ‘wiki’ means fast, or quick. The suffix pedia, means education. Wikipedia provides a quick education.
Cunningham said, “I chose wiki-wiki as an alliterative substitute for ‘quick’ and thereby avoided naming this stuff quick-web.”
The quick education about God says:
“God is most often conceived of as the supernatural creator and overseer of the universe . Theologians have ascribed a variety of attributes to the many different conceptions of God . The most common among these include omniscience (infinite knowledge), omnipotence (unlimited power), omnipresence (present everywhere), omnibenevolence (perfect goodness ), divine simplicity , and eternal and necessary existenc
“God has also been conceived as being incorporeal (immaterial) a personal being, the source of all moral obligation, and the ‘greatest conceivable existent’. These attributes were all supported to varying degrees by the early Jewish , Christian and Muslim theologian philosophers, including Maimonides , Augustine of Hippo , [ and Al-Ghazali , respectively. Many notable medieval philosophers and modern philosophers have developed arguments for the existence of God and in modernity against (the existence of God).”
In that brief statement there are forty terms, phrases or people footnoted and cross-referenced, any of which you can Google and get a quick education rather than spending several days at the library. (I miss the library!)
Not surprisingly, the Wikipedia entry for God refers to a Jewish, a Christian and a Muslim theologian. The aspect of God that the three Western religions have in common is captured in the phrase, ‘the source of all moral obligation.’
Maimonides is a highly esteemed Jewish theologian from the 12th century. He suggested an interested approach to a concept of God you can embrace; he called it Via Negativa. If you want to know what you yourself believe about God, or believe God to be, you should make a list of all the things about God that you do not believe. What’s left (and there will be something left) is the God you believe in.
I didn’t know about Maimonides’ Via Negative in 1969, my first year in seminary at Boston University, when my favorite professor of Philosophy, Peter Bertocci, asked me what I believed about God. Using my personal wiki-wiki, I said that I didn’t believe in God. He responded, Maimonides-like, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.”
That response got me out of the fox hole and in further conversations with Bertocci I was pointed in the right direction.
The God I didn’t believe in is akin to a child’s belief in Santa coming to an abrupt end that is at once liberating and a loss.
“Citing Psalm 65, Maimonides concludes that the highest form of praise we can give God is silence.” (By the way, English translations of Psalm 65 do not say that ‘silence is the highest praise to God.)
Strict Jewish practice does not allow the name of God to be spoken. Speaking the name suggests that we know enough about God to give God a name.
The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching remind us of the prohibition of speaking the name of God: The Tao which can be told is not the eternal Tao, the name that can be named is not the eternal name.
“Those who know, don’t say. Those who say, don’t know.”
I’ve come to think of God more as a verb than a noun.
Buckminister Fuller said, “I think I’m a verb.” Henry Nelson Weiman’s Process Theology definition of God is Creative Interchange. I like it.
I think of God more as a verb, or as a poetic term to illustrate the presence of compassion, or, as googling god says in Wikepedia, “God is the source of all moral obligation.”
Unitarian minister at Community Church in New York, John Haynes Holms, whose sense of moral obligation urged him to help found the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — the NAACP, and who introduced Mahatma Ghandi to America, put it this way:
“But when I say God it is poetry, and not theology. Nothing the theologians have ever said about God has helped me much. But everything the poets have written about the flowers and birds and trees, and God, whoever he may be, has at one time or another touched my soul. The theologians gather dust on the shelves of my library, but the poets are stained with my fingers and blotted with my tears.”
Here’s to some good googling!